What would Justin Martyr do about Netflix’s release?
Last December, Netflix released The First Temptation of Christ, a film that depicts Jesus as gay. The tagline reads, “Jesus, who’s hitting the big 3-0, brings a surprise guest to meet the family.” The surprise guest is Orlando, Jesus’ partner, who returns home with Jesus from the desert only to be greeted by a surprise birthday party thrown by Jesus’ family. The rest of the film explores the growing tensions surrounding Jesus’ sexuality, his relationship with God and Joseph, and his own faith and powers.
Not surprisingly, the film has angered many people. The First Temptation was produced by Porta dos Fundos, a Brazilian film company, and released on Netflix in Brazil. Brazil is almost 65% Roman Catholic, while an additional 20% of Brazilians follow some version of Christianity. On Christmas Eve, at least four masked assailants launched Molotov cocktails at the production house for Porta dos Fundos, and later released a video taking credit for the attack (the production house was empty at the time; no one was injured and the firebombs did little damage to the building).
More lawful responses to the film involve two online petitions to remove the film from Netflix. Online comments include denunciation of the film as blasphemous, accompanied by threats to cancel one’s Netflix subscription. The opposition to the film has seen some success: on January 8, a Brazilian judge ordered Netflix to remove the film (at the time of writing, the film is still available on Netflix USA).
The film’s production raises the question of how Christians should best respond to attacks on their faith. Christianity has long faced its cultured despisers, including during the earliest years of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In those days, many base rumors circulated concerning the Christians: they were incestuous and cannibalistic. Furthermore, cultural elites such as Celsus sought to refute Christianity on intellectual grounds. Church historian Justo Gonzalez notes, “Such arguments, and many others like them, could not be set aside by a mere denial. It was necessary to offer solid refutation.”
While online petitions and threats of cancellation have short-term gains (the removal of the film), they do not constitute a robust and engaging defense of the faith. Instead, they belong to the category of “mere denial.” It is not wrong to exercise one’s rights (though such rights would have been foreign to the early Roman Christians), but perhaps the Christian’s engagement of error should rise above the level of denunciation and frustration (1 Pet 3:15).
In this respect, one of the earliest defenders of the faith, Justin Martyr, offers Christians solid guidance.
Three strategies in particular stand out.
First, in Justin’s “First Apology,” he addresses the very people in authority who unjustly hate and abuse the Christians. He calls his writing an “Apology,” a defense, one that engages with the people who misunderstand the faith.
The story has often been told of Rosario Butterfield’s conversion that began with a “kind and inquiring letter” from Pastor Ken Smith. After Butterfield published a critique of the Promise Keepers in a local newspaper, she received so much mail in response that she kept two boxes on her desk, one for hate mail and one for fan mail. But when Pastor Smith’s letter arrived, she didn’t know which box to file it in because it asked thoughtful questions that challenged her to explore her presuppositions, an exploration that ultimately resulted in her conversion. Like Justin, Pastor Smith humbly addressed the person who opposed Christianity.
When films appear that challenge the biblical portrait of Jesus, instead of venting to other Christians online, one could write a summary of the gospel material for unbelievers that highlights the emphases of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps even invite a non-Christian friend to read through Mark’s Gospel with you. Like Justin, take time to address “readers on the outside.”
Second, Justin appeals to ideas that non-Christians accept in order to establish a base for justifying Christianity. Historical and theological studies have given much attention to Justin’s doctrine of the Logos, namely, that God first sowed his knowledge among the Greek philosophers as preparation for Christianity. Without affirming all that Justin claims there, apologists often seek to establish some point of contact between Christian truths and non-Christian reasoning. Throughout Justin’s First Apology, he highlights Christian ideas that pagans already accept, and argues that if they accept such ideas, they should be willing to consider more of what Christianity claims.
For example, when Christians are called atheists for refusing to worship the pagan gods, Justin notes that Socrates was accused of the same: “When Socrates, therefore, by dint of true reason, diligently applied himself to bring these hidden works of darkness to light, and to rescue mankind from the impositions of devils, then these very devils struck in with men of the same black spirit and delight in mischief, to get Socrates taken off for an ungodly wicked fellow and an introducer of new demons.” When Christians speak of a coming judgment, Justin notes, “Plato and we are both alike agreed as to a future judgment, but differ about the judges—Rhadamanthus and Minos are his judges, Christ ours.” Other philosophers speak of a destruction and renovation of the natural world, analogous to the Christian doctrine of the final judgment and new creation. Justin therefore essentially asks, If we teach some of the same things as your teachers but with more proof and virtue, why are Christians unjustly hated more than others?